Like other gemstones with a unique history, opal (the birthstone of October) is full of rich narrative history. This fascinatingly mysterious and fiery stone, whose vibrant colors change according to light and type, was considered magical in ancient times and across cultures. Opal jewelry has escaped the superstitions of luck and the ups and downs of fashion to become one of the most precious stones of antique jewelry fans and modern jewelry designers.
The word opal comes from ‘opalus,’ meaning ‘to see a change in colour.’ The Romans prized opals, making them second only to emeralds, and believed they could bring good luck to their owners. The Romans also believed that these stones symbolized hope and purity. The Roman scholar Pliny wrote of opals: “In them there is a softer fire than in rubies, the radiant purple of amethyst and the sea-green of emeralds, all of which shine with incredible union.”
The ancient Greeks believed that opals brought vision and prophecy, while the Arabian culture thought that opals were lightning bolts falling from the sky, filling them with variegated colors. Although the stone also brought inauspicious meanings, it was not until the 19th century that opal became a great disappointment for two reasons.
The first story is that of King Alfonso XII of Spain, who was cursed with a ring containing an opal. After giving the opal ring to his wife, she dies unexpectedly. The crew was passed down through generations, and each new owner died mysteriously. A frustrated king decides to wear it himself, and soon afterward, he dies. But in the meantime, cholera has reached epidemic proportions, with over 100,000 deaths in all walks of life, and this may well be the actual cause of these premature deaths.
Another, more widely known story is that opals have a reputation for bringing bad luck to their wearers, if not to the person who gave birth to them. The opal hairpiece in Sir Walter Scott’s Anne of Geierstein is said to have brought disaster to its owner, which has given rise to this superstition. Queen Victoria wore opal jewelry to dispel the superstition after discovering a massive opal in 1870 in Australia, a British territory. She also gave beautiful opal gifts to her friends and five daughters. Tullie Cornthwaite Wollaston was born in South Australia in 1863 and introduced Australian opals to the rest of the world.
By the end of that period, opals had been designed into all types of jewelry, such as the classic five-stone Victorian ring, opal brooches set in the locket, and later, in the Edwardian era, in lapel pins with elaborate garlands. The Art Nouveau movement saw the artistry of mixing various types of opal into one piece.